A Dynamic Duo For Managing Lost Work Time

Employers that combine end-to-end disability management with absence management can reduce costs, boost productivity, and fortify employee trust and engagement.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011
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Combining end-to-end disability management with strong absence management is a win-win for workers and the bottom line.

Managing lost work time due to illness, accident or personal reasons such as caring for a sick family member has historically been viewed as something less than a strategic business issue. Employers typically took a scattershot approach, mainly waiting for carriers to act and other disconnected strategies to keep people on the job and, hopefully, productive.

But today, with top-quality talent becoming tougher to attract, develop and retain, employers are hungry for better ways to maintain or boost workforce productivity. To get there, they should consider taking a two-pronged approach to managing lost work time and shoring up a healthier bottom line through a more productive workforce.

It begins with managing absence and disability from a multidimensional perspective, a strategy that helps both employers and employees on the lost-work-time front.

Second, employers might want to consider implementing a multi-faceted absence strategy that covers all the bases for lost work time outside of illness or accident. Paying closer attention to absence management makes plenty of sense, when you consider the findings of a recent Kronos/Mercer study ("Survey on the Total Financial Impact of Employee Absences," Kronos/Mercer, 2010) that showed employee absence can cost an organization up to the equivalent of 35 percent of its payroll.

In the end, combining a comprehensive disability management effort with a strong absence-management strategy can go a long way in helping employers reduce lost work time and boost both productivity and the bottom line.

Michael Klachefsky, national practice leader for Workplace PossibilitiesSM at Standard Insurance Company (The Standard), says that on the disability management front, employers need to take a fresh approach, one that focuses on the importance of collaborative, on-site disability management. Workplace Possibilities offers a unique, proactive strategy to keeping employees at work and productive. "The idea is to change the way employers manage disability," Klachefsky says.

Michael Dunst, national practice leader for Absence Management at The Standard, believes the main reason for implementing a formal absence-management program is to help employers manage productivity.

"We want to keep people at work, and for those who are out, we want to work with the employer to make sure employees return happy and productive," Dunst says. "With absence management, we can manage most instances of leave. And Workplace Possibilities is a natural tie-in, a resource for that employer and the absence team to coordinate return to work. It's a natural fit between the two areas. When you marry the two together, it makes a very compelling case for employers with all of the added resources."

According to Jeanne Meister, author of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today, engaging in proactive disability and absence management is not just a good idea for the employees, but for employers as well.

In her book, Meister notes that as baby boomers continue to retire, employers will not only need to strive to slow down that trend, but also must figure out how to manage the inevitable "brain drain" that's expected within the next nine years. A program such as Workplace Possibilities can help reach those goals by keeping baby boomers who might otherwise retire due to health considerations in the workforce longer by making the workplace more friendly for them through worksite or job modifications.

If someone has the right skills and talents but is unable to work because of a disability-related reason, employers must decide how best to keep them in the workforce or bring them back as quickly as possible, Meister explains.

"It is going to take much time and money to replace talented people who are out of work for extended periods. If you already have the person with the right skills, you are much better off getting them back working as quickly as possible," says Meister, adding that employers can reduce lost work time by simply changing negative conditions -- bad ergonomics, for example -- that can lead people to require time off the job. She calls it "personalizing" the workplace.

"Building and developing personalized workspaces is one way to help an employee remain productive, and it also shows they're valued by their employer, which can help boost productivity," she says.

Options to Minimize Disability

To help reach that "personalization" objective, The Standard's Workplace Possibilities clients have access to a range of services that help drive productivity and minimize the effect of disability in the workplace. "While we can't make disability go away, we certainly can take some of the pain out of the process of getting employees back to work," Klachefsky says.

There are some key cornerstones in the Workplace Possibilities strategy, apart from deploying on-site disability management specialists to each client's location or locations.

At the top of the list is how job accommodations can save an organization significantly in costs by preventing disability-related leaves, mainly by altering working conditions through simple, yet effective ergonomics or other injury prevention measures.

A second critical component is getting return to work and wellness coordinators to collaborate to achieve an organization's wellness goals.

Specifically, employee-assistance programs can help employers reduce issues such as presenteeism by working with employees to improve family/relationship problems, anxiety/stress and more. In this case, Workplace Possibilities counselors can reach out to employees dealing with mental and physical issues, and assist them in finding the help they need to stay at or return to work.

"Staying in constant contact, especially toward the end of their leave, sends a powerful message that the employee is valued and the employer wants them to come back to work; that they are an asset to the company," Klachefsky says.

Finally, there is the health-advocacy component, with trained professionals who can help employees navigate the complexities of the healthcare system during what is typically a stressful period. Heath advocacy services are also a critical component of The Standard's Absence Management program and can have a positive impact on reducing presenteeism.

"There are many return-to-work programs, but Workplace Possibilities is different," Klachefsky says. "We try our best to find a way to prevent a disability from happening, identifying opportunities to either keep people productive and on the job, or get them back to work as soon as possible."

To date, Workplace Possibilities is having a significant impact for The Standard's customers. More than 70 employers have successfully implemented the Workplace Possibilities on-site program, with reduced average monthly disability duration in excess of 20 percent (Standard Internal Data, 2011). Employees participating in the program returned to work an average of 25 days sooner than Medical Disability Advisor guidelines. (The duration reduction is benchmarked against the Medical Disability Advisor's and/or the treating physician's predicted duration.)

For all employers adopting the on-site model, Workplace Possibilities has maintained a 70 percent success rate, with one-in-two employees who engage in the program successfully returning to work. For 2010, the program helped employers save an estimated $1.7 million in disability-related cost (Standard Internal Data, 2011).

The Standard handles all aspects of placing Workplace Possibilities consultants on-site in the workplace. Employers don't have to hire, train, manage or pay the consultant -- it's all included as part of their long-term disability plan with The Standard for groups of 1,000 employees or more.

Workplace Possibilities' on-site consultants also can help reduce the burden on an organization's HR team by delivering training to in-house HR staff that will help them identify potential issues and manage disability claims. They also can lead efforts to assist injured or ill employees out on disability, helping them return to work under the best possible conditions so they can stay productive.

Once the program is established, the Workplace Possibilities consultant proactively evaluates the workplace, identifying potential disability risks while making modifications that remove barriers to productivity.

"The core of Workplace Possibilities is helping to prevent disability in the workplace," Klachefsky explains. "The program addresses mental-health conditions on an equal basis with physical-health conditions."

The Standard's Dunst explains that combining an absence-management program with Workplace Possibilities is a productivity strategy that covers the vast majority of touch points with employees.

"We have seen a significant impact for employers who use both programs," he says. "With Workplace Possibilities, you have a resource on-site with the employer, getting to know their workforce, the culture and environment, which then can be translated into opportunities for employees to come back to work."

Dunst says The Standard's absence team works on a variety of related leave fronts, but especially on absences related to the Family Medical Leave Act. He says FMLA absences may include "intermittent" leave, whereby employees do not have a set leave schedule. Intermittent leave, Dunst adds, presents employers with some very difficult absence- management challenges, particularly tracking and managing these types of leaves.

"When you tie absence management with Workplace Possibilities, it hits the entire continuum of keeping people productive as best as possible," he says.

"Our folks know how to maneuver through the process, so you can really measure impact on productivity," he says. "All of these absence-management-support efforts, at the end of the day, will impact employer productivity. It is as simple as marrying Workplace Possibilities with absence management."

The Standard's absence-management program also can help employers manage both state and federal compliance issues. As is the case with workers' compensation insurance, state regulations regarding disability can be a confusing patchwork of different kinds of requests that could include special leaves, organ donors, military duty and volunteer fireman.

"When you factor compliance into the leave process, it is very difficult for employers to stay on top of it," Dunst says.

"United Front"

Dunst notes that between Workplace Possibilities and absence management, the bases are covered.

"When we're out talking to various employers, they often separate disability management from absence management, but it is most effective when they put those two together to form a united front," he says.

That certainly has been the case at employing subsidiaries of The Schwan Food Co., a Marshall, Minn., firm that recognized years ago that their employees needed help remedying work conditions that led to unexpected leave.

Through partnering with The Standard and its Workplace Possibilities program, the Company has made great strides in helping employees utilize services that could keep them at work or ease their transition back into the workplace. In the process, the Company has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in disability claims and saved time and money by not having to recruit and train new employees (Standard Internal Data, 2011).

A large reason for the initiative's success is the partnership between the team of Workplace Possibilities consultants and the Company's benefits team, who work together to create a customized program.

"Our Workplace Possibilities consultants believe there's no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to improving productivity," says Norma Streich, benefits manager at the Company. "Our program is catered specifically to our company and developed as situations arise. We're all members of the same team, making it a true partnership."

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Because of the nature of their jobs -- the manufacture and distribution of food products -- Schwan employees will, on occasion, experience aches and pains that put them at risk of having to claim some type of disability.

For instance, the Company recently became aware of a group of people with a common blood condition in one of the Company's food-manufacturing plants. Because their job required them to stand a significant part of their shift, they were at risk of several complications, from loss of balance to ulcerous foot sores. Some employees described the resulting pain as ". . .hundreds of bee stings." Upon learning of this, the Company's team of Workplace Possibilities consultants looked for options to assist the employees. 

The team identified a specific kind of boot designed to cushion feet; provide ankle, arch and heel support; and evenly distribute body weight to avoid painful pressure points. The consultants also found seamless socks with extra padding that reduced friction and irritation.

By taking the few extra preventative steps to help, the Company was able to keep employees at work -- benefitting both the employees and the Company. Not one of them required any subsequent leaves of absence related to their disease.

"In this day and age, when so many companies are doing more with less, we want our employees to know that we appreciate what they do for us, and we'll work with them to address any accommodation needs we are able to," says Lori Skewes, leave of absence supervisor with Schwan. "The Workplace Possibilities consultants help us do that."

Skewes says "they're not just members of the insurance company's team -- they're invaluable members of our team."

In addition to the drivers on the roads and the people working in the plants and distribution centers, the Company also has several office locations. One particular office employee struggled to get through the workday because of a disease that left her feeling chronically fatigued from several complications. For example, the employee sat in a chair wrapped in an old sweater for extra cushion. In addition, the fluorescent lights in the office made this employee's optic nerve flare up, stressing the eyes while working on the computer.

Recognizing this employee's discomfort, the Workplace Possibilities consultants reconfigured the office space. They purchased an ergonomic chair and keyboard to make sitting for long periods of time in front of a computer more comfortable and better for posture. They also replaced the overhead lighting with full-spectrum lighting, which mimics natural daylight to relax the employee's eyes.

"Our employees mean a lot to the company, so we want to provide them tools and make accommodations when appropriate," says Schwan's Streich. "Our goal is to help people stay at work and be productive, engaged employees. If we are able to help someone stay at work, it is very rewarding."

On occasion, of course, employees' minds can be occupied with things other than work. They can be worried about a family member's illness, a friend's divorce or maybe even their own health. The Company acknowledges this, and has a mental-health adviser on staff to assist with whatever an employee may need to address these concerns.

For example, one employee was recently hospitalized for severe depression and chronic worry over family finances. The mental health adviser stepped in and assisted this employee in getting the needed help through the Company's EAP.

"As an employer, we recognize that employees may have things other than work on their mind when they walk in the door each day," Skewes says. "We're all human, and as a company we want to be there to help people through difficult times in their lives. Workplace Possibilities helps us do that."

The Schwan Food Co. and The Standard had a partnership for several years before implementing the Workplace Possibilities program. In 2010, Schwan saved nearly $327,000 in disability costs with the Workplace Possibilities program (Standard Internal Data, 2011). More than 300 people have participated in the program, and the number of employees engaged in it doubled during the first four months (Standard Internal Data, 2011).

"When the Company decided to take advantage of the Workplace Possibilities program, it really jumped in with both feet," says Kathy McCarthy, a Workplace Possibilities consultant. "We get suggestions every day about employees who could benefit from the program . . . and the results are astounding."

For the employees that did require disability leave, the Company noticed a drop in the number of days they were gone. In 2009, employees on average were gone for 64 days, and in 2010 that number dropped to 57 days (Standard Internal Data, 2011).

"Most employees want to come back as soon as they can, so they're willing to engage in this process with us," says Streich. "It turns out that it's a very easy process when we have consultants who understand our business and culture. The consultants have made a significant impact on establishing a successful Workplace Possibilities program. We look forward to expanding the program and continuing to deliver positive results."

At the end of the day, says Jeanne Meister, it's an extremely smart business decision to implement programs such as Workplace Possibilities and absence management.

"I believe that employers who understand the trends in the workplace in 2020 will be better able to prepare and personalize the workplace experience," she says. "They can attract, develop and retain the employees they need, and also engage them.

"To me, retention is at the heart of Workplace Possibilities," she adds. "It's about creating a partnership, engaging employees so that they can get healthy as fast as possible, return to the workplace, and be productive and positive."

The Standard is a marketing name for StanCorp Financial Group, Inc. and subsidiaries. Insurance products are offered by Standard Insurance Company of Portland, Oregon, in all states except New York, where insurance products are offered by The Standard Life Insurance Company of New York of White Plains, New York. Product features and availability vary by state and company, and are solely the responsibility of each subsidiary.

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